The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in theater has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will power brokers and critics realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?
Women's unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford's War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem (another British import about a character the Variety review calls a "wild man," a "once noble animal gone to seed"); and Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf**ker with the Hat (directed by the talented Anna Shapiro), whose macho title can't even be fully printed in most newspapers.
Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. With a disabled daughter and few skills besides impressive street-smarts, Margie can't make economic ends meet, while her old boyfriend, Mike, has escaped his poor background with a scholarship and a medical school education.
Margie and Mike's sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates. But how would Margie's infrequently-heard story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?
I'm not suggesting that only women should tell women's stories (though men have of course told men's stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire's Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama.
But since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won -- God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.
Unsympathetic observers accuse women of simply writing bad plays. Failure is indeed endemic to theater, which requires great leaps of imaginative faith across challenges that often prevent good work from reaching audiences. But Marsha Norman and Theresa Rebeck, two very successful women playwrights, have both accused critics of promoting stereotypical expectations of women's work -- among them, that women's plays are "soft" and that audiences prefer to hear women's stories written by men.
While female gender doesn't necessarily guarantee insight into women's lives, powerful first-string male critics regularly demonstrate a distressing lack of interest in plays in which women writers craft female protagonists. Sure, advocacy groups like the League of Professional Theater Women and 50/50 in 2020 work hard to redress quantitative bias. But without a gender-balanced critic's corps in the American media, the lopsided, inadequate representation of women playwrights on Broadway will persist.
Those of us who teach should encourage talented students -- male and female -- to write about theater from informed perspectives that consider women's stories as vital to the living tapestry of American theater. Without gender diversity, the theater's ability to inspire and help reimagine our lives remains impoverished.
Until critics take women playwrights seriously, audiences won't hear all those good new stories waiting to be told. Theater-goers should agitate for cultural reporting that brings more nuanced interest and insight to stories by and about women so that their own experience as spectators will be enhanced.